Before the prodigiously gifted British writer Mike Bartlett wrote last year’s Broadway knockout King Charles III and the BBC’s Doctor Foster, he was what might be called a New Angry Young Man in the tradition of fellow countryman Stephen Poliakoff (Gideon’s Daughter) and our own Michael Weller (Spoils Of War, Moonchildren), casting a jaundiced eye on the Woodstock generation and its discontented spawn. That includes Bartlett’s excoriating Love, Love Love, written six years ago and receiving its premiere here in a brilliantly cast production at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre.
The three brief acts chart the meeting and marriage of Kenneth (Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield of The Hobbit franchise) and Sandra (Amy Ryan; Birdman, Bridge Of Spies), beginning June 25, 1967. The date is significant because it was the occasion of “Our World,” the first global satellite telecast, viewed by some 400 million people in 25 countries and concluding with an in-studio performance by the Beatles and friends (Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful among them) of “All You Need Is Love.” Sandra is a free spirit in Mary Quant (the wow costumes are by Susan Hilferty) who shows up at the rancid flat of stolid Henry (Alex Hurt, stolidity personified) for a date but quickly takes up with the cooler if flightier Kenneth (Armitage, annoyingly disarming).
The second scene finds the now financially secure Kenneth and Sandra with their salad days behind them and as parents of adolescently mean Jamie (Ben Rosenfield) and adolescently self-hating Rose (Zoe Kazan; Ruby Sparks). By the final scene, Kenneth and Sandra are heading into blissful retirement, oblivious of the fact that their unmoored children are the living wreckage of their journey into the Comfort Zone. “Look at you,” cries the embittered Rose. “‘ If you can remember the sixties you weren’t really there’ — What a smug f!!king little thing to say. You didn’t change the world, you bought it. Privatised it. What did you stand for? Peace? Love? Nothing except being able to do whatever the f!!k you wanted.”
Harsh, yes, and let’s admit somewhat broad for a generation (of which I am admittedly a card-carrying member and frequent advocate) that included at least a few societal game changers. Yet still ringing of truth, especially in the performances that Michael Mayer (American Idiot; Spring Awakening) has drawn from this amazing quintet.
An awareness of the rise of the Me Generation, Thatcherism, trickle-down economics, greed-is-good, global warming (need I go on?) infuses the bile with poignance as Love Love Love slowly becomes Rose’s crie de coeur. And while it’s great fun watching Armitage and, especially, Ryan age seamlessly from callow youth to shallow middle age, it’s the increasingly commanding Kazan who walks off with the show. I’d say she’s the one to watch, but we’ve been watching her for a while, and she just keeps getting better.